It wasn’t an admission of his waning prowess as a finisher or confirmation of an imminent adieu. But Indian skipper MS Dhoni, in his press conference ahead of the series opener here, did announce the search for India’s next nerveless finisher. It’s not a frantic or desperate pursuit, but a patient and tolerant wait. It is about providing the right batsman with the right opportunities. But first, perhaps the most difficult part is identifying whether the batsman has the requisites to shoulder the strenuous responsibilities. “It’s a difficult one,” warns Dhoni.
And the skipper gives reason for calling this a tough job. “It’s not about six months or one year. You have to be used to that role and responsibility and have to have that self-confidence to keep on doing what is required of you usually over a period. Once you find a good finisher, they are the ones that’ll keep batting at that slot for 8-10 years,” he points out.
Dhoni was perceptibly referring to the longevity factor. The best example is Dhoni himself, or Michael Bevan, whom his skipper Steve Waugh described as a Pyjama Picasso. Or Mike Hussey and Arjuna Ranatunga. Those who were blessed with a “calculator for brain and a tweezer for a bat”. Ben Stokes surely has morphed into a condition-proof finisher for England. So has his colleague Jos Buttler.
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There were others who were supposedly gifted finishers but went down the drain after a brief sparkle. England’s Graeme Thorpe was one (though he excelled in finishing Test matches). Sri Lankan Russell Arnold, to a lesser degree, was another. Of course, Mohammad Kaif sneaks into that list. At one stage, before his belated resurrection, Eoin Morgan looked heading into the dark alleyway. So seemed the career of Suresh Raina, who though isn’t entirely out of the Indian selectors’ scheme for the future, if recalling him for the New Zealand series is any indication. There certainly was a time when Raina was labelled the next-best finisher after Dhoni in the team.
Some of his knocks merited such labelling too. None with as much instant recall value as his unbeaten 34 which dethroned world champions Australia from the 2011 World Cup in Ahmedabad. Another knock was the 89 not out he reeled off against England in Mohali (2013).
Dhoni, has, on more than one instance, confided of the conscious effort to groom Raina into a finisher. In Bangladesh last year, he was made to bat at number six with Dhoni preceding him at No 5.
“For the longer term, it’s very important for us to see who can bat well at No.6 and 7, even maybe No. 5. That was the reason why I pushed Raina down,” Dhoni had said then. But all that promise fizzled out after a string of middling numbers. Dhoni didn’t reproduce the aforementioned quotes verbatim here, but suggested as much, when he said he will bat up the order in the series.
“I may bat slightly up the order now. This team will give me an opportunity to bat at the number I’m looking for. But still it’ll be quite low. It’s not like a No.4 where I could bat, still it’ll be relatively higher than what I’m used to in the last few years.” In his last 12 innings, Dhoni has batted mostly at number four and five, and just twice at No 6, where he has come out for most part of his career. A judicious speculation is that he might come at No. 5 in this series.
Finishing, though, is less about spots and more about the role. Had Raina been fit for the first ODI, he certainly would have been assigned this role, for the sheer wealth of experience in batting at No. 5 and 6 and the familiarity with such high-pressure scenarios. If he optimises his comeback, it could be a win-win scenario for both Raina as well as the side, given his buoyancy on the field and utility as a part-time spinner.
But he’s sure to have competitors. Dhoni says they have “identified a few names”, which he obviously didn’t divulge, for the fear of “putting too much pressure on them”.
The discreetness with which Dhoni spoke about it was like diplomats discussing nuclear plants and atom bombs. Among the group of identified players, Manish Pandey will figure pre-eminently and his progress will be closely tracked. Since his unbeaten hundred in Adelaide early this year, he has superseded Ambati Rayudu as the favourite fringe batsman in emergency.
He is primarily a top-order batman, a stroke-player rather than an accumulator. His approach to the chase wasn’t dissimilar to Dhoni’s, though. As many as 38 off the 104 runs came through boundaries. But he also ran 32 singles and 15 twos, which displayed his ability to thread the gaps. More than the mode of run-gathering, it was calmness under pressure that must have prompted him to be shortlisted for the finisher role.
Since the hundred, though, Pandey has faced just one ball in international cricket, against Zimbabwe in Harare, a series where the top three ensured the middle order hardly got an opportunity to bat. That’s another difficult part of batting down the order. Dhoni agrees: “A lot of time you don’t get the opportunity. If your top order is batting really well and doing the bulk of the scoring, your role completely changes. A lot of times in India, the lower order doesn’t get a chance to bat. Then in 15-20 games, you get an opportunity like that and you expect the youngster to do well in that particular innings, that is to score a 100-150. And if he doesn’t, say that was a perfect opportunity in front of you.” He might as well be alluding to Rayudu, who was jettisoned a tad harshly.
Sometime in this series, or against England later this year, they will be afforded the opportunities. And whoever shows he can bat with a “calculator as brain and tweezer as bat” can be that precious successor to Dhoni.